This past weekend, the holiday spirit appeared to have ushered in at least a semblance of bipartisan cooperation in Congress. The House and Senate finally passed, with broad bipartisan support, a so-called “megabus” FY2012 appropriations bill that funded the remaining nine appropriations through September 30, 2012.
Then, the Senate reached a bipartisan agreement–also with the House, or so it seemed–and passed (89-10) a two-month extension (until march 2012) of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance benefits for long-term unemployed, and a temporary fix for the Medicare doctor reimbursement rate. Under the bill, the costs (about $30 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office) would be paid for from higher Fannie Mac and Freddie Mac lender fees. The short-term extension would allow negotiators time to hammer out a full-year deal.
The Senate sent the bill to the House for what was hoped to be an approval vote by Monday night. However, many House Republicans balked and in a move that surprised Senate leaders the full House rejected the Senate bill, 229-193. House Speaker John Boehner (R-IN) said Congress should not accept a short-term extension, but work, through the holidays if necessary, to fashion an agreement for the entire year.
Last week the House had passed a one-year extension of these three items paid for primarily by a one-year extension of the federal civilian employee pay freeze, higher individual contributions to federal employee retirement, and increased Medicare premiums by high income beneficiaries. Senate Democrats and the president objected strongly to the proposed offsets.
So, the short-lived, real or imagined, spirit of bipartisan cooperation came to an abrupt halt. Gridlock appears to be stronger than ever and once again, Congress is in crisis mode.
Of course, there are still 10 days to reach agreement. Speaker Boehner has called for a House and Senate conference to negotiate a solution before the end of the year and the president has remained in Washington urging the House to reconsider and agree to the short-term extension. But, they are speaking to almost empty halls in Congress.
The Senate has left Washington for the holidays and is scheduled to return on January 23, 2012. Most House members have also returned to their districts. And, 160 million Americans are left wondering if their payroll taxes will increase on January 1, 2012.